[22 June 2010]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
“She needs to learn to take care of herself.” Fang Sui Yong’s foster father nods in her direction, as she wraps herself around her foster mother, who smiles even as she confesses her sadness that the eight-year-old is about to leave her home in Guangzhou for the United States with a new adoptive mother. “Of course, we didn’t want her to go,” she says. “Even if it’s tearing my heart apart, it’s better for her.” Sui Yong’s new mom, Donna Sadowsky, watches quietly, not understanding a word they’re saying.
Still, as this early scene in Wo ai ni mommy (I Love You Mommy) makes clear, all sorts of feelings can be communicated without words. Stephanie Wang-Breal’s fascinating film is alternately poignant and distressing, following Sui Young’s difficult transition from one life to another, one world to another. It is, as her foster father notes, a journey she must make on her own, even as she is surrounded by adults (and other children) trying to help, or at least understand. “I can’t help you,” Donna will say repeatedly after they’ve arrived at Sui Yong’s new home in Long Island, “If you don’t tell me what’s wrong.” And repeatedly, close-ups of the girl’s distraught face indicate that it’s hard for her even to begin to say.
Screening on the first full day of this year’s AFI-Discovery Channel Silverdocs Documentary Festival, Wo ai ni mommy exemplifies a recurring focus on efforts to understand and connect. The 2010 program is impressive for its range of subjects as well as the many, sometimes unanswerable questions posed. Films include Kaleo La Belle’s Beyond This Place, about the filmmaker’s own struggles to understand his elusive father, Raymonde Provencher’s Grace, Milly, Lucy… Child Soldiers, which looks at the complicated process of forgiveness and recovery for several Ugandan women, former conscripts for the infamous Lord’s Resistance Army, and Secrets of the Tribe, Jose Padilha’s examination of what’s at stake, for whom, in the relationship between anthropology and its subjects.
Rebecca Richman Cohen’s superb War Don Don looks at the intersections of memory, media, and moral orders during the war crimes trial of Sierra Leone’s Issa Sesay. Still other films investigate the intricacies of familial relations: The Kids Grow Up, directed by Doug Block, looks at his own needs as a father to a daughter leaving home for college, and Chico Colvard’s Family Affair examines his traumatic and deeply entangled family history.
From Presumed Guilty
This first day’s offerings include Presumed Guilty (also the closing film at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival and airing as part of PBS’s POV series on 27 July). Here the difficulties of communications are introduced in an opening epigraph, asserting the film is “Based on an untrue story.” That story is a murder case that begins when a breakdancer and street vendor in Mexico City, José Antonio Zúñiga Rodriguez, nicknamed Toño, is arrested in 2005. Though he has nothing to do with the crime—he’s not near the scene and doesn’t know the victim—the police pick him up, insist that he “knows” what he’s done, and find a young witness to name him. The “system” clamps down, Toño is convicted, and his life seems over.
That is, until his girlfriend, Eva, hears about a pair of Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas (CIDE) legal researchers, Roberto Hernández and Layda Negrete, who have tracked an alarming history of corruption in the Mexican justice system (for instance, 93 percent of inmates never see an arrest warrant, and 93 percent of defendants never see a judge, but only lawyers collecting checks and clerks who file their papers). Though they are on their way to Berkeley, the young lawyers are moved by the extreme unfairness of Toño’s case, and agree to take on his appeal. Hernández decides as well to film the process, and his images make up the bulk of the film, which is co-directed by Geoffrey Smith (The English Surgeon).
The documentary lays out the many barriers they face as they bring the case back before a judge, including the daunting news that they will be facing the same judge, Hector Palomares, who sent Toño to prison in the first place. The defense team brings in a respected lawyer, Rafael Heredia, who finds numerous flaws and gaps in the original file, even as he reveals that, according to the law, they are unable to challenge these points. And so they must make use of the structural peculiarities of the Mexican court system, namely, that Toño appears in the courtroom (more like an office space) in a cage, while lawyers and witnesses face him, the judge in between, repeating their exchanges, line for line, for the purposes of recording.
Not only does this arrangement make for a dramatic scene, frequently resembling a split screen, but the question-and-answer format also draws attention to tense pauses, nervous faces, and, set off in a background, Eva and Toño’s sisters and mother, hanging on to every detail. After Heredia’s questions lead the arresting officers to insist they don’t remember anything about the case (and also lead Toño to call one of them a liar), the defendant, not his lawyers, questions the witness, a visibly anxious youth named Victor. As Negrete narrates, the lawyers coach Toño carefully, to lead Victor through a set of queries resulting in a sensational revelation.
As vivid as the courtroom scenes may be, however, the film is more effective in its evocations of Toño’s shifting states of mind, rendered in images of his breakdancing in the prison yard, barbed wire and blue sky behind him (“Dancing is like not being in prison,” he narrates, “It’s like escaping, not being here for a while”), walking long hallways, or sitting among other young men much like himself, their shoulders stooped, their faces despondent. The film makes another, crucial observation as well, framing various performances—by lawyers, judges, and witnesses—to underline their guile, theatricality, and self-consciousness. As Toño works to keep his composure, he speaks meticulously, his words rehearsed even as his fate remains uncertain.
The fate of Sui Yong appears to be more secure at the start of Wo ai ni mommy. She is adopted and she is headed to the States. But as in Presumed Guilty, the film’s structure complicates an already complicated story. As Sui Yong adapts to her new mommy, her new language and family (and her new “American name,” Faith), she is alternately needy, angry, and stubborn. Donna, for her part, is insightful and patient, as well as frustrated and understandably looking for self-confirmation amid the emotional chaos.
Most interestingly, the film slides between its subjects’ self-presentations, as Wang-Breal sometimes serves as translator for mother and daughter. While this role in itself means that the person behind the camera is plainly helping to shape the experience of her subjects, it’s further snarled by the fact that Wang-Breal speaks Sui Yong’s second language, Mandarin; the child uses Cantonese when she’s upset, and soon comes to understand that she can say what she wants and not be understood if she doesn’t want to be. The resulting conversations include a moment when Wang-Breal asks the tearful. raging Sui Yong if she wants her to translate what she’s said (“I want to go back to China”) while Donna waits to hear, her face expectant, apprehensive, and knowing too.
In America, Faith is introduced to her dad, Jeff, as well as her new siblings, the couple’s natural sons Jared (who is especially doting and good-natured) and Jason, and another adoptee from China, four-year-old Darah (who insisted, Donna recalls that her new sister be “taller” or older, as she wants to remain the youngest in the family). The film stays focused on Donna’s efforts to connect and also to frame their nuanced experiences. At one point she turns to the camera to observe, “If she doesn’t get what she wants, there’s major hissy fits being thrown.” The camera pulls out from this scene, the rest of the family chatting around the dining room table and Faith in a lonely foreground, plinking on a toy piano’s keys.
Throughout her first year, Faith misses her foster family in China, and asks to speak to her Guangzhou sister, so they can share stories and giggles. Donna waits patiently in the background of these shots and in others, manages Faith’s “fresh” behaviors with brief rebukes and typical mommy-ordained choices (“You can apologize or you can go to your room”). When Faith notes that she doesn’t have a choice, she’s at least partly right: her life has been reorganized for her, and, as often as Donna notes that it’s hard for an eight-year-old to adapt so quickly to such a drastically new environment, still, she must insist on Faith’s conformity.
That’s not to say the Sadowskys are blind to specific issues with a transracial adoption (though they have apparently not discussed them reading Darah, whom they brought home at 14 months, before she spoke Chinese or, to their eyes “felt” Chinese). Though Donna early on seems aware of Faiths possible concerns (“Do you think mommy’s ugly?” she asks during their getting-acquainted days in China, her way of asking if her whiteness bothers her daughter), she and Jeff appear surprised when a counselor suggests they attend to race and racial identity as well as “the cultural pieces”. Jeff suggests they provide Faith with access to bits of Chinese culture (like Chinese New Year and “Bruce Lee”). And Faith, losing her Cantonese language as she absorbs English, asserts that she now feels more “American” than Chinese. She’s learning to take care of herself.
From Wo ai ni mommy